Posh girls, pencil skirts, and the male voice

the book:

Death of a Unicorn by Peter Dickinson

published 1984   Part 1 chapter 2   events set in about 1952

[Lady Margaret Millett, a bored debutante suffering through the season, has been invited to try out for a job in journalism, writing a gossip column about her fellow socialites for a magazine.]
"...I hit the typewriter as hard as I could, furious and disgusted. The machine looked and felt like a spare part for a mechanical elephant… the dusty, drab-yellow room smelt of nerves and unemptied ashtrays. The hem of my stupid pencil skirt caught my calves when I tucked my legs back under my chair, the way I used to, so I’d hoicked it up round my thighs and the hell with creases. I re-read what I’d written…

I pulled the paper out and rewrote the paragraph about Fenella’s dance in pure, illiterate debutese. The words seemed to flow straight out through my fingers without my thinking about them at all.

I tugged my skirt down and minced along with maddening nine-inch steps to Mr Todd’s office. He was on the telephone, and something the person at the other end had said had caused him to explode into a harsh bellowing laugh. He took the sheet of paper from me and read it, still apparently listening to the telephone…"

So obv she is going to get the job, that’s how this scene always ends up. What is interesting is the skirt. This is a young woman wearing a pencil skirt and high heels, and throughout the scene she stresses how awkward it is – at one point she is waiting for the lift, and says ‘in any other skirt I could have gone clattering ostentatiously down the stairs’, and she says she can’t sit in a low chair because of her skirt. But this is totally unconvincing – pencil skirts aren’t that bad, and the bit about the legs and the chair and the hoicking simply doesn’t make sense. (The Clothes in Books photographic team worked objectively at it.)

Peter Dickinson is a wonderful author, sadly under-rated and largely forgotten, and he writes very good female characters – Eva, in his Young Adult novel of the same name, is an absolutely extraordinary creation, for a reason which would spoiler it if you knew before you started reading the book. But this little bit is a male author imagining himself into a female situation and trying to be too clever and it doesn’t ring true. If you read this blind, which gender would you think had written it? Later in the book the heroine wears ‘a new dress, flame-coloured silk’ and – sweeping generalization – that sounds like a male description. On the other hand, here’s a lovely bit of posh-ery worthy of Nancy Mitford: ‘We had all suffered mildly from my mother’s conviction that the daughter of a previous Cheadle under-gardener could make us more becoming hats in her little shop in Bolsover than anything we could buy in Sloane Street, and at a tenth of the price.’ And this sounds fab: ‘I’d fallen for a little Dior suit, dark grey silk with black lapels and cuffs.’ (Jane Eyre, this entry, could wear it to get married in.)

Lady Margaret gets her job at Night and Day, which as it happens is a real magazine – but one that closed down in 1937, after a bizarre libel case (worth googling) concerning Graham Greene and Shirley Temple. The book creates a fake rescue and continuation for the magazine. The actual details of magazine life were probably based on the British humour magazine Punch, where the author worked.

Peter Dickinson wrote books for all ages, he wrote scifi and detective stories and children’s books. The detective stories, like this one, are particularly clever and haunting – the mean-minded nitpicking above should by no means outweigh a strong recommendation to hunt down second-hand copies of his books: other favourites include The Last House-Party and The Yellow Room Conspiracy.